In a time when other states are trimming back on educational technology initiatives, the governor of Connecticut is moving forward with an ambitious plan to give laptop computers to the state’s high school students.

In the budget Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell presented to the General Assembly last week, $15.5 million is set aside to purchase laptop computers for high school English classes.

“If we want our students to be on the leading edge of learning, we’ve got to provide cutting-edge technology and teaching innovation,” Rell said. “Laptops go far beyond improving keyboarding skills.”

Education Commissioner Betty Sternberg proposed the initiative last fall as a way to improve high school students’ writing ability.

If the plan is approved, 19,000 laptops would be purchased for the state’s 600 ninth and 10th grade classrooms. About 300 classrooms would be equipped by the 2005-06 school year, and the rest would have the technology by the following school year.

The laptops would not be given to individual students. The computers would be kept in locked units in each classroom.

“This will create the situation where youngsters are really writing using the laptops, which is the way most of the world does it right now. It’s just [that] we don’t do it in class,” Sternberg said.

The state Department of Education has pushed for the program in part because the state wants to begin administering the writing portion of the state’s 10th grade standardized test by computer.

The department is considering a computerized version of the Connecticut Academic Performance Test for the 2008-09 school year. But it wants students, particularly those who have not had exposure to computers, to have a chance to get used to using the machines first.

Students write more when they use computers, Sternberg said, and when they write more they learn to become clearer and more concise writers. Tools like spell check and grammar check also can enhance students’ writing skills, Sternberg said.

“You still have to know your grammar and your spelling,” she said. “It’s a facilitating tool.”

Educators hope the proposed laptop program will help create a more seamless transition to college and the workplace. Rell said she has heard concerns from business leaders that schools need to do a better job of producing students with up-to-date computer skills.

The proposal is one of the few new spending initiatives in Rell’s budget, given a projected $1.2 billion deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Rell said the budget, which she unveiled Feb. 9, contains difficult choices because of the budget hole.

Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, co-chairman of the state legislature’s Education Committee, said he wanted to see the governor and the Education Department present evidence that laptops affect student performance. Because of the budget deficit, lawmakers need to make sure they are investing in initiatives that work, he said.

“If someone learns how to write well, [he or she] can do it on a computer, on a pad, or on a chalkboard. It doesn’t matter. A good writer is a good writer,” said Fleischmann, D-West Hartford. “I’m not saying that I’m opposed to the idea. What I’m saying is I’d like to see evidence that this improves students’ ability to learn.”

Though there is not yet extensive research on the subject, a study of a laptop program in British Columbia, Canada, last year suggested that using laptops in the classroom can help improve students’ writing skills.

According to the study, at least 150 middle school students at the Peace River North School District in northern British Columbia showed “vast improvements” in their writing ability after wireless laptops were integrated into the classroom. The percentage of students who met the province’s writing education standards reportedly jumped from 70 percent before the laptop program began to 90 percent in just one year. (See story: Studies validate laptop programs in U.S., Canada.”)

Links:

Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell
http://www.ct.gov/governorrell

Connecticut State Department of Education
http://www.state.ct.us/sde